BTJ Clothing 50% off!! Use code BDAYMAYCLEANING

Iron Juice and Dyeing with Rust

I love using materials that may be considered "useless" or even "garbage" to create works.  Rusted objects are a perfect example of that! 

Iron sulfate, or ferrous sulfate, is used in natural dyeing as a "saddener," as explained in last week's post, or as a mordant in preparing fiber to accept the dye. In this post I'll show how to easily make your own iron liquor and a fun and easy dye project that can be very satisfying. 

As explained in last week's post, you can buy the powder or make your own "iron juice" easy as 1-2-3.

1. Pick a jar that you that you will let go to the process.  You probably won't be using it again once you've committed it to making iron juice.  Make sure the lid that you choose isn't metal (it will rust) and that it can open it.  If you don't air the jar, it will explode.  Not like "Boom!" but air will want to escape and it will make a mess, dripping all over the place. Notice the lid I chose that has the mouth spout. I close it, and every once in a while I heard it "Pop' open. I then go and shut it.

2. Grab some rusted objects! Once you start looking for them, you'll see them everywhere. You can use "fresh" metal but sometimes it's hard to tell if the metal is stainless or not.  If it's already rusted, you know! Make sure you can fit them into the jar and if you're concerned about staining your hands, wear rubber gloves when you're collecting.  Wearing gloves is also recommended for avoiding cuts.

3. Put your metal pieces in the jar. Fill halfway with water.  I use tap here in NYC, but using well water or river water can have slight different affect. Then fill the rest with white vinegar. Then wait! That's it!

This is my jar that at this point is 3 years of age.


You keep your jar indefinitely! This particular jar has been around the block as they say.  But sadly my first jar was destroyed by my clumsiness. I love using glass but there is the possibility of breaking... I had used a regular Ball jar lid, which is metal.  It rusted itself to the jar, and while I struggled to open it, it fell, and stained the floor ForEver. Learn from my mistakes...


Sneak peek inside the magic :-)


This rusty pulley I found on the street one day wasn't how I started this jar of goodness, but it has made my iron juice really potent!  

The strength on your iron juice depends on the amount of rusty objects and age of your jar.  You should see murky waters within the month if you started with already rusted pieces. As you use the mixture add equal parts vinegar water to fill the jar. Add rusted objects as the ones in your jar break down.

Use to mordant fiber for dyeing Or staining wood!

Now here's a fun project to try out. Kid safe as long as they wear gloves. 

Grab some rusty bits (as i like to call them) and fabric.  Maybe a soiled and satined piece of clothing?

Mix 50% water with 50% white vinegar.  You can either put it in a spray bottle or have a bucket or dish of it. 

Spray or dip the fabric with the vinegar mixture. Place the rusty bits onto the fiber. Roll it up. Either lengthwise or all bundled up. Then secure it wade with rubber bands or cotton cord. You can spray or dip in more if you feel it needs it. The fabric should be completely saturated.

Then bag it up and wait a few days. Now this timing depends on how rusty the pieces are, the thickness of the fiber, and the temperature.  I find in the winter the action is a bit slower. The thicker the fabric the longer it will take to stain/dye it. Just make sure it sealed and stays wet. I would say 2-3 days is a good length of time for thin to medium weight fiber.  You can check on it, add more moisture, and put back to bed if you feel it needs more time.  Too much time and you may see thinner fabrics breaking down.


Now this isn't an archival process.  If you attempt on a really fine silk, you may see the fabric break down over time. So do keep that in mind.

Washing! There is some debate on the washing process.  You'll see that salt water is sometimes used, but I have not found a great answer to why.  My theory is that because salt water accelerates rusting, it may help rust pieces to fall off the fiber.  You will see that in some areas pieces will be stuck to the fabric.  This is my wash process:

After I remove the rusty bits and Save Them (use them until the fall apart). Make sure the rusty bits dry completely before you store them or they will be one big ball of rusted metal. I make a salty water bucket.  About 1 cup to 5 gallons of water. I soak the item in the bucket for 15-1 hour. Then I really scrub that item in this bucket to try and get all the residual rust off the fabric because that will break down the fiber. Then I'll wash fabric in synthrapol and a sprinkle of soda ash (baking soda will do in pinch). I want to neutralize the acid in the fiber that the vinegar added.  Then a final rinse wash.

These are pillows I bundle dyed with rusted barbed wire I found in the woods.  The metal was so old that the trees had grown over the wire. 

 And this piece I dyed with rusty squares I found at a construction site after initially dyeing with cochineal!

Experiment! Have fun! Try dyeing fabric outside on top of rusty items! Artist Tanya Aguiñiga dyes directly from the rusted wall at the US/Mexico border. Placing fabric on rusted surface, spraying with vinegar, and applying pressure can produce beautiful affect.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published